About a month ago a friend on on Facebook asked where around Gyeongju you can “go to the river.” Unfortunately I’ve been a bit distracted with writing my Master’s thesis over the last month, but I hope to post on a few places to “go to the river” around here while there’s still some of the summer left. There are actually a number of nice swimming holes and lovely picnicking spots by the rivers around Gyeongju which we go to almost every weekend, if the weather’s nice.
In fact last Sunday we took a family outing to Yongyeonpokpo (용연폭포) Waterfalls, aka Girim Falls (기림폭포), which is an easy kilometer’s walk up the valley from the historic Girimsa (기림사) Temple. Girimsa Temple sits on the east side of Mt. Hamwolsan (함월산) going towards the east coast and is just a few kilometers north of Golgulsa (골굴사) Temple. Girimsa Temple itself dates back to the Three Kingdoms period and was originally named Imjeongsa, or “Forest Well Temple.” According to legend the temple was founded by the Indian Buddhist monk Gwangyu, who taught over 500 Silla monks here. The temple was expanded in 643 when the famed Silla Buddhist master Venerable Wonhyo served as abbot. Ven. Wonhyo renamed the temple Girimsa, or “Venerable Forest Temple,” after Jeta’s Grove where Sakyamuni Buddha used to stay on occasion in the early Sutras. During the Unified Silla Dynasty, Girimsa was one of the largest temples in Korea and remained an important center of Buddhist learning and practice for over 1,200 years until it was destroyed by fire in 1863. Girimsa was soon rebuilt, but the temple never fully recovered and its importance dwindled during under the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945).
To be honest, in spite of the temple’s rich history, I can’t say that I found Girimsa that interesting as far as Korean temples go, especially when compared with the likes of Tongdosa just 30 minutes south of Gyeongju, or the ancient carvings and caves of Golgulsa Temple down the road. Aside from one Silla-era stone pagoda, the most of the structures at Girimsa are a few hundred years old at most. Not to mention the flat gravel landscaping leaves the atmosphere at Girimsa feeling a bit dry. The stark wood carvings and faded paintings of the temple facades do give the temple a touch of charm and the temple museum houses some interesting ancient treasures and pieces of Buddhist art. Still, a visit to Girimsa Temple alone would only really be interesting for serious temple junkies.
That said, Girmsa does make a great starting point for the 1 km walk to Yongyeonpokpo (용연폭포) Falls and, for the more adventurous, the day hike over Mt. Hamwolsan (함월산). I’d last been to Yongyeonpokpo Falls on a winter hike almost 2 and ½ years ago when the falls were frozen solid. Last weekend I figured the walk to the falls might make a nice family-sized hike with our 2 year old and the stroller (technically a jogger, I guess) in tow. We weren’t disappointed and the river below the falls was a great place to cool down from the muggy July heat.
From inside Girimsa Temple, the trail to Yongyeonpokpo Falls starts at the rear gate in the far left corner of the temple complex by the Myeongbojeon Hall (명보전), which is #8 on the temple map above. The path continues through a bamboo thicket and past a quaint wooden pavilion with a view of the valley that looks like the perfect spot for spending an afternoon relaxing with a bottle of makkoli and a good book. After passing unused rice fields and a newly built traditional stucco house, the road intersects with another access road at the gate to the National Park. The access road to the right follows the river back to the parking lot, skirting the outside of the temple, and makes for a bit of variety on the return walk. The trail to the falls however follows the left fork into the forest and continues along the banks of a ravine for several hundred meters. As the path then cuts sharply to the left and down to the bridge, keep an eye out for the ancient Chinese characters carved on the cliffs to the left. (Though don’t ask me what they mean. I haven’t the foggiest.)
A sign to the right of the bridge announces “Welcome to the March Road of King Sinmun.” King Sinmun, of course, was the son of King Munmu the Great who, with the help of General Kim Yu-sin, unified the Three Kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula in the 7thcentury and expelled the armies of T’ang China. King Munmu’s dying wish was that his body be cremated and buried at sea so that his spirit could become a dragon to protect the East Coast from invasions and pirates. King Sinmun interred Munmu’s ashes at the lone islet of Daewangam at the mouth of the Daejong River and then built Gameunsa Temple to watch over King Munmu’s grave.
According tot he Samguk Yusa, several years later, as King Simun was out for a sail one day in the East Sea, his father’s dragon spirit appeared and gifted the king with a magical jade belt. The name of Yongyeonpokpo Falls actually comes from the legend that, as King Sinmun was travel up this road to cross Mt. Hamwolsan and return to Gyeongju, he stopped at the falls for a breather. As he was dipping his head into the river, the belt accidentally dangled into the water. Owing to the powerful magic of the belt, the link that had touched the water transformed into a dragon and flew off into the sky (as I supposes can happen with magical belts gifted by dragons).
From the bridge and sign it’s just 100 meters then to Yongyeonpokpo (용연폭포) Falls. You’ll soon come to a bend at a cliff face carved with “Namu Amitabul” (나무아미타불), or “Homage to Amitabha Buddha,” the mantra of Pure Land Buddhism that is popular among Korean Buddhists. I don’t know if it’s technically allowed, but from here you can duck under the wooden railing and head down to the river for a magnificent view of the falls. Although it’s not huge, Yongyeonpokpo is one of the more picturesque waterfalls near Gyeongju. The falls drops about 20 feet into a clear blue pool surround by steep cliffs and the river flows down from the pool through a gap in a large rock wall. The cool mist from the falls is quite refreshing after a hot and sweaty summer walk. The banks of the river below the falls are perfect for picnicking and both kids and adults will enjoy splashing around in the rapids. You can continue on up the trail where there’s a overlook for the falls and from here avid hikers can continue on the trail up and over Mt. Hamwolsan.
We’d worked up an appetite after the hour walk back (a kilometer can take a lot longer when your 2 year old stops to throw rocks and chase dragon flies every 5 meters). Fortunately there are a number of restaurant around the Girmsa Temple parking lot, of which we chose the Keun Sonamu Siktang (큰소나무식당) to the left of the bridge. We opted for the jeong sik (정식), or menu of the day, which was good but not great. Still, the dinner was perfect for the location alone, as we dined in a riverside pavilion serenaded by the sounds of the bubbling water.
For those looking for an easy nature hike in the mountains or a pleasant afternoon “at the river,” I’d definitely recommend a visit to Girimsa Temple and Yongyeonpokpo Waterfalls. Girimsa and the hike to Yongyeonpokpo are easily combined with a visit to, or overnight stay at, Golgulsa Temple just down the road, as well as King Munmu’s Underwater Tomb and the ruins of Gameunsa Temple further down by the coast. The only problem really is getting to Girimsa if you don’t have a car. There’s a direct bus from the Siwi (시위), or “intercity,” bus terminal, that goes a few times a day. However, you might do just as well to catch the 100, 130 or 150 to the market town of Yangbuk, get off at the stop for Eoil 1-ri (어일1리), and catch a taxi back up to Girimsa Temple.
View Sights of Eastern Gyeongju in a larger map